What Is Forgiveness?
Jack Cottrell – November 2014
QUESTION: Must we or should we Christians forgive someone who sins against us and refuses to repent? Some people say that we must forgive regardless, but that does not mean we have to restore fellowship to the unrepentant offender. Others say that Christians are not required to forgive unless the offender repents. If the offender does not repent, the fellowship stays broken. What do you say? Must we give forgiveness unconditionally, or not?
ANSWER: What does it mean for us as human beings to forgive other human beings who offend us (sin against us, do us wrong)? The starting point for answering this question is to understand what it means for God to forgive us: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32, ESV).
The question then becomes, exactly what is involved in God’s forgiveness of someone who has sinned against him? When we think about it, we will see that it is not just a single act on the part of God, but is rather a more complex event that involves three distinct steps. We could also say that forgiveness is a three-part process that involves two persons and not just one. I.e., forgiveness presupposes a situation in which one person has offended another. One person has been wronged in some way, and the other person is guilty of committing the wrongdoing. In the case of divine forgiveness, God is the one who has been wronged, and we sinners are the wrongdoers who need his forgiveness. How does this happen?
The first step in forgiveness is for the wronged person to have a forgiving heart. It begins with the kind of person one is. In reference to God, Psalm 86:5 tells us that he is “forgiving” or “ready to forgive.” This does not mean that he actually forgives every person, but that he is willing to forgive and wants to forgive; it is his nature to forgive. This is an aspect of the loving side of God’s nature. It is simply who he is.
As far as we are concerned, that must also be our nature. The problem is that this does not come “naturally” to sinners. Sin has corrupted our hearts so that our first impulse, when someone has wronged us, is to retaliate or “get even.” This is not who we are supposed to be, however. As creatures made in God’s image, we are supposed to have a loving and forgiving nature. When we become saved the Spirit of God begins to dwell in us for the purpose (among other things) of restoring that forgiving spirit within us. This is something we should consciously be working on; this is the first step in the process of forgiveness. When we are wronged we must be prepared to imitate God; we must be “ready to forgive.”
The second step in forgiveness takes place when an offense actually occurs. When this happens, the offended person offers to forgive the offender. This is the case with God. Because it is his nature to forgive, he offers to forgive us sinners. This is the point of the gospel. The gospel’s good news is that God has done everything necessary to bring about reconciliation between himself and sinners. Forgiveness thus is like a gift that God offers to sinners.
Likewise, if we have suffered wrongdoing at the hand of a fellow human being, we must offer our forgiveness to that person. Like God, we should take the initiative in attempting to restore the relationship of peace and harmony.
It should be noted, however, that even though these two steps have been taken (developing a forgiving heart, and offering the gift of forgiveness), actual forgiveness has not yet become a reality. This is because a third step is necessary, and that is something the offender himself or herself must do. It is true that forgiveness is a gift; but a gift must be received as well as given. And receiving the gift of forgiveness requires a specific decision on the part of the offender.
In reference to God’s relationship to the sinner, despite his forgiving nature and his offer of the gift of forgiveness, he does not actually forgive the sinner unless the sinner meets certain conditions specified by God. In other words, forgiveness is not unconditional. Being ready to forgive is unconditional, and offering the gift of forgiveness is unconditional, but the actual bestowing of the gift is conditional. In this New Covenant age God has specified that the sinner will actually be forgiven only if he meets the conditions of obeying the gospel, which are four: faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, repentance of the sin itself, confession of our surrender to Christ, and being immersed into the state of forgiveness.
Likewise when we are wronged, even though we want to actually forgive someone who has offended us, we cannot complete the process unless the offender willingly accepts the gift we are lovingly offering. We have done all we can do when we complete the first two steps. We have offered to forgive, but the offender is not forgiven until he accepts our gift. This follows the pattern of God’s forgiveness. God offers to forgive, but the sinner is not forgiven unless he accepts God’s offer.
I do not agree with those who, in defining forgiveness, make a distinction between petty offenses and serious wrongdoing. The idea, they say, is to forgive the former unconditionally but to require that conditions be met before forgiving the latter. What I have said above, however, applies to all offenses, petty or drastic. The process of forgiveness cannot be completed without the offender’s acknowledgement of wrong and acceptance of the gift. In every situation, of course, the “offendee” must be in the forgiving mode–ready to forgive, wanting to forgive, offering to forgive. And there may be a sense in which this “spirit of forgiveness” can be thought of as actual forgiveness (i.e., “I have forgiven you whether you accept it or not”), but in a more precise sense the wrongdoer is not forgiven unless he accepts the gift.
It is true, though, that some offenses are more or less serious than others. In this connection, the less serious offenses may not necessarily destroy a friendship or harmonious relationship between two people, even if the offender does not acknowledge his offense and accept forgiveness. This may damage a relationship, but not destroy it. A more serious offense, though, may indeed destroy a relationship until the forgiveness is accepted. But this distinction does not affect the way we define forgiveness.